Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Proposed Traffic Light Artificial Intelligence System as Part of a Comprehensive Strategy to Minimize Energy Use, Pollution, and Driver Time Wastage

Advanced AI will not be "one thing" - it will vary enormously, depending on the nature of the objectives for which it has been designed. This explores one possible application of a fairly simple AI application that could render tremendous value.
Artificial Intelligence Traffic Light
Before we get too caught up in the world of droid AI, which is an exceedingly advanced version of AI, there are undoubtedly all kinds of simpler applications that might be described as reasonably proactive, doing something that is essentially a no-brainer that you almost certainly wanted to have done, without explicitly telling it.

I must admit, I have been caught up in the Kurzweilian spirit of altruism. Therefore, I will will step away from my narrow consumer focus for at least the duration of this post. What is a relatively simple AI application that within its scope of operation could accomplish the following objectives:
1. Reduce time wastage for millions of people, every day.
2. Minimize energy wastage.
3. Minimize pollution

And do all these at the same time, in a non-competitive way.

There are many examples of such low-hanging fruit all around us. Lets look at just one, the staid world of traffic lights.

How many times have you been sitting at a stoplight for 2, 3 minutes, no cars coming from any direction? It seems like an aggravating eternity, and you’re wanting to run that light, but you don’t.

You always think, what’s the deal, I'm the only one here, why doesn’t it turn green? We unreasonably expect it to display that intelligence, every time, for some reason. In my case, its because some lights seem to do this, but this could be coincidence, but that faint expectation persists in the back of my mind for every light. However, at least most the traffic lights are on a preset schedule, that doesn’t take into account individual, moment-by-moment traffic patterns. However, sitting at a traffic light unnecessarily, or even slowing to a red light and having to speed up as it turns green as you’re about to stop, wastes energy, wastes time, adds to pollution, with no benefit.

Let's project a maturity of AI technology that would enable awareness by a traffic light of its intersection. Not amazingly advanced awareness, but well enough to respond differently to different traffic flow situations.

Toward this end, if each light pointing along an intersection quadrant, each pointing along the street that it controls the flow from, could detect what was in front of it, from cars stopped right in front, to approaching cars, say, 1000 feet away, and gauge their approaching speed and acceleration/deceleration. If a car is approaching, and no other cars are coming, even if its been red for only 5 seconds turns green again, before you even start slowing down it turns green again for you, maximizing time and energy conservation.

Also, this approach would allow behaviors that are today quite uncommon. For example, often the left-turn only arrow at an intersection are paired, so that two streams of cars can turn left at once, across the intersection from each other. However, if one left-turn signal runs out of cars, then the opposite side of the street should be allowed to proceed forward.

The main thing to remember is, it's all about keeping as many cars moving through that intersection with as little delay as possible, while still giving everyone a fair chance to proceed without unduly long waits.

Of course, this is the simplest example, and things get quickly more complex with different numbers of cars coming from different directions, and closely spaced intersections, each with its own traffic light.

One light can't let too large a number get by on an individual optimal traffic flow decision, and have them pile up at the next one, a ¼ mile away. It cant be a total energy-minimization and time-minimization decision. If that were the case, one car on a less-busy street might need to wait half and hour before it gets a green, while hundreds of cars on the busy street crossing it go by. However, if that same light turned green just long enough to let that car by, and then immediately turned green for the cross-traffic again, that’s intelligent. Again, we wouldn’t say, what a smart light, but if it didn’t after doing that for a while, you’d be swearing at the incredible lack of intelligence of that light.

Obviously, the case of a single traffic light considered in isolation is the simplest scenario. Really, we want that traffic light to be communicating at least with its nearest neighbors as well, especially if they are in near proximity.

If there is a wreck on the highway nearby, the traffic light needs to become immediately aware of that, and change its behavior accordingly. So that when a large amount of traffic starts flowing off the freeway into the sphere of influence of that traffic light, there aren't ridiculously huge backups simply because that traffic light isn't responding to that changed condition.

So, it will be great when the intelligent traffic light comes along. However, consider this - this seems like a fairly simple AI app, compared to some we will describe. And there is absolutely no way that PredictionBoy is the first one to think of this, so it seems reasonable to suggest that since others almost certanly have, and maybe have even tried to design one, and found it quite tough to do so.

So, that will be a great product, look for it. But until you see it, or other products like it, with even small amounts of intelligence (or slightly lower stupidity), don't be looking for humanoid droids, or even metal men, C3-POs. Remember, we must keep our hard hats on, keep our expectations realistic. It will be a while, these are very tough problems. But get there we will, and it will be worth the wait.

Further reading:

The Application of Artificial Intelligence to Transportation System Design

How does a traffic light work? Is there an A.I. consciousness at work?

new electrosensitive traffic light using fuzzy neural network

Fascinating facts about the invention of the Traffic Light by William L. Potts in 1920

How does a traffic light detect that a car has pulled up and is waiting for the light to change?


Anonymous said...

Our City has a number of useless traffic Lights. I wonder what the energy savings would be if we eliminated the light completely? I need to be able to credibly be able to estimate how much gasoline is used by stopping or slowing down at a light versus going through the light at a normal speed. Any help?

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